The fight over UK wind power is not over yet

February 13, 2012 | 00:00

From Civil War and Braveheart to the Battle of the Pylons

The fight over UK wind power is not over yet

As far as the UK Government is concerned, the battle over onshore wind power is won. Wind farm capacity has been growing rapidly both on and offshore and there is much more to come. Given the incentives offered this is not a surprise. However as more and more turbines begin to dominate the British skyline, local opposition is by no means finished. Indeed it may have just begun, especially as another front is opening up, namely the grid expansion necessary to connect the turbines. A possible "nuclear renaissance" in the UK will only serve to complicate the picture. Chris Cragg reports on the UK's Battle of the Pylons - which has some surprisingly deep historical roots.

The prize winning T-shaped tower by Rasmuss Jessing for a new design of pylon (source: Rambles with a camera)

Over a hundred Members of Parliament, almost all of them from the ruling Conservative Party have written to the Prime Minister to demand that the subsidy to onshore wind farms be cut and the planning process changed to make it easier for local people to object to them: "In these financially straightened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies on-shore wind turbines."

The MPs go on: "We also are worried that the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), in its current form, diminishes the chances of local people defeating unwanted on-shore wind farm proposals through the planning system." The list of 101 MPs reads like a roll call of the representatives of rural England and Wales. That there is sympathy amongst government ministers cannot be doubted. One Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, has fought a two-year battle to prevent a farm in his Bedfordshire constituency and lost.

Objections to MPs from local villages about the farms have been arriving by the sack full. Virtually every site has its own justification for rejection. One site, overlooking Naseby, site of the decisive battle of the English Civil War, was allowed to go forward because the inspector apparently suggested that the turbines would be only around for 25 years. The 126 metre turbines are to be placed where Cromwell mustered his forces to defeat the King's army. In the words of the organiser of the letter, Christopher Heaton-Harris MP: "It is a huge constituency issue".

Every hundred square miles

There can be little doubt about the Government's success in promoting wind power. According to the latest figures available from Renewable UK, the successor to the British Wind Energy Association, there are 307 operational onshore wind farms and 14 offshore, amounting to a nominal 5,952 MW. Currently under construction, there are a further 38, with 1,464 MW onshore and 2,054 MW offshore. So far, consent has been given for 238 more farms, with 3,742 MW onshore and 1,862 MW offshore. Projects at the planning stage amount to a further 7,759 MW onshore and 2,275 MW offshore, making a further 329 farms on the drawing board. If things go as planned the UK will have around 926 wind farms on and offshore, amounting to around 26 GW of nameplate capacity by around 2020.

Growth has been accelerating. More capacity was built in 2009 and 2010 than was created in the previous five years put together. If the grand total actually gets built, and it was averaged out over the whole land area of the UK, then there would be an onshore wind farm for roughly every hundred square miles of the country.

To put this in context, the latest Seven Year Statement of the National Grid issued in May 2010, stated that total grid-connected UK capacity was 82.6 GW. Looking forward until 2016/17, the grid predicted that this figure will rise to 109.1 GW, an increase of 26.5 GW, of which 11.7 GW will be wind and 1.7 GW renewable energy other than wind. Significantly however 17.1 GW would be gas-fired combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT), with a further 4.4 GW of coal. A further 1.7 GW will be created by a new inter-connector and, if the figures do not appear to tally, this is because 7.5 GW of old coal and oil-fired capacity will be shut down for good.

Looking beyond the seven year period, the UK will also lose 1,700 MW of nuclear capacity in 2016, 1,090 MW in 2018 and a further 2,330 MW in 2019, amounting to 5,930 MW in total. However the

One site, overlooking Naseby, site of the decisive battle of the English Civil War, was allowed to go forward because the inspector apparently suggested that the turbines would be only around for 25 years
government is on a concerted drive to replace this capacity and make the UK, in the words of the Energy Minister, Charles Hendry, "one of the most exciting places in the world for nuclear investment." Eight sites were designated in mid-2011, all of them predictably where there are existing plant, either running or being decommissioned. The first of these new plants at Hinckley Point, a 3,260 MW station proposed by EdF Energy, is now going through the planning process and could conceivably be on line in 2020.


Consequently, looking at the bald figures for power station capacity, going forward, it would seem that fears about the lights going out have been exaggerated. The National Grid projects peak demand to grow by 5% by 2016 if GDP growth reaches 2.7% a year. However it also projects that it will decline by 6%, if GDP growth is only 1.4% per annum, which is much closer to what has actually been happening. In fact UK demand has been falling for some time. Weather adjusted demand fell from 347.6 TWh in 2005/6 to 314.7 TWh in 2010/11. Even under its high demand scenario, National Grid does not believe that total demand will have returned to the 2005/6 number by 2017/18.

However, matters are not quite as they seem. For a start, the 11.7 GW of wind power does not represent the equivalent of a similar number attached to CCGTs or to nuclear power stations. Due to the variability of the wind, wind farms rarely achieve 'load factors' above 35%. That is to say, that for a 1,000 MW farm, the annual output achieved is unlikely to be 1,000 MW times 365 days a year, times 24 hours, or 8,760,000 MWh. It is much more likely to be 3,066,000 MWh. Consequently what is stated as 11.7 GW of wind is actually the equivalent of around 4 GW of conventional capacity.

A CCGT or a nuclear plant is never going to achieve a 100% load factor either. It will need maintenance and will in any case only be producing electricity when the grid needs it. Indeed, UK statistics put the overall load factor of British generating capacity at around 50% of its nameplate capacity. However this is an average figure dictated by the need for the system to have the plants on line. Most nuclear, coal and CCGT can operated at between 80% and 90% load factors if required. Wind farms cannot, not least because if the wind is not there, they can't generate and if it increases much beyond 55 mph, they will need to be shut down for fear of damage.

This explains that while adding 11.7 GW of wind to the system in the next six years, a larger figure of 17.1 GW of highly flexible CCGTs are needed as well; a process that is well under way, with 4 GW under

The new line runs through the Ochil Hills and close to the Wallace Monument, a memorial of the Scottish champion against the English made famous by the film Braveheart
construction and a further 8 GW with planning permission. Plants like RWE's Pembroke and Scottish Power's Cockenzie are direct replacements for oil fired and coal-fired capacity. The motivation appears to be a combination of sustaining market share and a belief that wind's flexibility will remain high. The CCGT can be built fast on existing sites and is thus the cheapest immediate option in the face of the perceived shortfall in supply.

Even if the grid chooses to maximise the amount of wind-generated electricity on the system, it will still require back-up balancing supplies. Even without the wind power additions, UK generating capacity is expected to be 101.6 GW or a 23% increase on existing capacity over the next seven years, including planned closures.


The reason for investing in wind is of course to meet the carbon emissions targets, given that new nuclear capacity is likely to take some time to arrive, if it does. The real aim of the game is to reduce the load factors on conventional gas and coal capacity, when the wind is available. It is this that reduces the carbon emissions, although unhappily it does not reduce the capital costs of having to have highly flexible back-up generating capacity and a flexible grid, whose primary requirement is to maximise wind power input. The most complicated question is how you create a market in wholesale electricity that fits these political objectives.

The solution has been that suppliers selling directly to consumers are required by law to purchase a proportion of their power from renewable sources, known as the renewable obligation (RO). In order to prove that they have purchased this proportion, the renewable producers are given renewable obligation certificates (ROCs), which they then sell to those who buy their power or sell them separately; one per MWh. ROCs are given on all renewable electricity generated, not just on that sold to the grid at wholesale prices, but also on that sold locally or used by the generator itself, since some wind farms are owned by suppliers. A renewable generator thus has two sources of income, that from the sale of electricity and from its sale of ROCs.

A supplier buying the electricity need not buy the ROC as well. Indeed ROCs do not come automatically with the purchase of electricity from a renewable generator. They are bought in addition to the cost of the wholesale electricity. However the supplier must prove that it has achieved the necessary number of ROCs to cover the RO percentage of its total electricity sales. To do this, the supplier can either buy ROCs from other suppliers - they are tradable - or have to buy them at a fixed cost set by the Government, effectively a forced buy-out or 'fine'. The money raised is then redistributed back to the suppliers in proportion to the number of ROCs they hold, further rewarding those who buy from renewable energy. The only downside for renewable electricity suppliers is that there might be a surplus of renewable electricity beyond the percentage demanded by the RO, but this has never happened, because the regulator keeps raising the percentage of renewable electricity required to be purchased in line with the carbon emission targets.

The Government has thus sustained the increase in wind farms by raising the level of the obligation to get ROCs as the wind farms have increased. Starting at 3% in 2002/3 of total supply, it reached 6.7% in 2006/7 and has now reached 10.4%. It is scheduled to increase to 15.4% by 2015/16. The sums involved are considerable. The enforced purchase price, which was £33.24 per MWh in 2006/7 has now moved up to £37.19 per MWh. Back in 2006/7 EdF Energy was forced to pay £2 million for missing its RO by 2%.


The word 'subsidy' is anathema to both the wind and the nuclear industries, although the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) calls what is happening precisely that, or "a bonus premium" to renewables. What it represents is a pretty large incentive for a supplier to buy as much renewable energy as possible, of more precisely the ROCs that go with it. It does this in two ways. It does it because if a supplier does not have a sufficient percentage, it can be forced to purchase them and it will not share in the distribution of the proceeds at the end of the accountancy period either.

With wholesale electricity prices bouncing between £55 and £44 per MWh in 2010/11, an enforced purchase price per ROC of £37.19 represents a significant incentive to buy renewable energy. With these accumulated 'fines' representing around £246 million in 2010, the amount distributed back to those suppliers holding ROCs can be as high as £16 per MWh of renewable energy supplied.

For example, if a supplier buys a ROC at auction or from the renewable generator at say £40 per MWh, he is then given a rebate of maybe £16 per MWh per ROC from the fines on others with don't have them, making each ROC really cost around £24 per MWh. He thus avoids a fine of £37 per MWh with no additional discount at the end of the accounting period. However the total number of ROCs available is limited since it is governed by the amount of renewable electricity generated and priced by auction. A supplier will thus try to buy as many ROCs as possible, but due to the shortage, the purchase price will eventually increase beyond any benefit.

The ROC, depending on market conditions, can thus be often worth considerably more than the wholesale price of electricity. Indeed at the twice yearly auction, when a supplier has purchased too many and wants to sell them, the ROCs can command between £40-£50 per MWh. Indeed, historically there has always been a shortfall of ROCs and their price has been persistently above the 'buy-out' price of the fine.

This incentive system is extremely difficult to explain because it is extremely dynamic. For a supplier, who is also a generator, it makes sense to build wind farms, because they collect ROCs to offset their carbon producing plant. The wholesale electricity price across the UK is universal across the country, but varies hour-by-hour and day-by-day. Buying electricity from any generator fluctuates in price and there is no difference in the price paid for renewable energy compared to any other supplier. However, because a certain percentage must be bought from a particular type of supplier and be proved by a ROC certificate under threat of a fine, a secondary market in ROC certificates has been invented, that is detached from the real one in electricity.

Subsidy or not, a detailed examination of the ROC system for wind farms in September 2008, by Bob Barfoot and John Constable for the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) concluded that as much as 46% of wind farm income resulted from the privileged value of ROCs. In another paper last June, REF suggested that the total cost of the RO arrangement had been an addition to electricity bills of around £5 billion between 2002 to 2010 and that this was increasing exponentially as the amount of wind capacity increases, reaching around £6 billion a year. If matters continue as they are, they allege, the system will add around £39 billion (cumulatively) to the cost of UK electricity to the consumer by 2020. Such figures are not out of line with other official figures from DECC. Ofgem put the 2009-2010 subsidy to wind at £522 million.

Pylon appreciation

This is at least an admission that reducing emissions is not cost free. There are other incentives too. The Feed-in-Tariff system outside the ROC scheme and designed for small renewable generators

The highly popular BBC TV "Countryfile" programme regularly returns to the issue, causing widespread concern
gives wind energy under 5 MW of capacity significant advantages and there are grants for farmers considering using their land. Perhaps oddest of all are the 'constraint payments' given to wind farms, when asked by the grid to shut down because of capacity constraints on the grid. These appear to be often rather more than the price of the electricity that would have been provided. While conventional plant also get constraint payments, they generally refund to the grid the cost of the fuel saved by not operating.

All these incentives certainly explain the rapid growth of UK wind capacity. However there is one aspect of the onshore farms that is beginning to cause concern and is likely to create powerful political waves. The British public is beginning to wake up to the fact that these onshore wind farms need to be connected to the grid. For if some rather like the aesthetically pleasing turbines on the hill, very few, with the exception of the eccentric "British Pylon Appreciation Society" like the idea of overhead cables stretching across the landscape, particularly if that landscape is an area of natural beauty. And it is no coincidence that many of the wind farms are located in some of the wildest, most mountainous, most remote and most beautiful parts of Her Majesty's United Kingdom.

The opposition first started as early as 2004, with the "Highlands before Pylons" (HBP) opposition to one link in particular, the 137-mile 400Kv Beauly-Denny line with 600 towers. This received permission with a number of expensive conditions from the Scottish Government in January 2010, after five years of argument, caused not least because the new line runs through the Ochil Hills and close to the Wallace Monument, a memorial of the Scottish champion against the English made famous by the film Braveheart. The opposition is believed to have doubled the cost of the line from the £331 million estimated in 2004 to around £600 million. The pylons under construction are larger than any previously built in Scotland and are now marching their way through the Cairngorm Mountains.

As HBP has pointed out, it looked suspiciously as if Scottish and Southern Electricity (SSE,) with a monopoly of grid transmission in northern Scotland, want to make Beauly a hub for another line linking it right across the highlands to Ullapool, on the west coast, near where it had a number of proposals for wind farms on the Isle of Lewis. Given that five local authorities objected to the Beauly-Denny link, an Ullapool link can be expected to generate outrage since it would run slap across the northern Scottish highlands.


Meanwhile the English and the Welsh have also become involved in the protests about new pylons led by the formidable 'Campaign to Protect Rural England' (CPRE). Fresh from a campaign to wreck the UK Government's plan to privatise forestry and woodland, it has pointed out that the National Grid has already got 420 km of overhead transmission lines crossing national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and now wants a whole lot more. Since National Parks and AONBs make up 26% of the total land area of England and Wales, they are difficult to avoid.

Current plans allegedly include 125 km of high voltage lines around the Lake District, 80 km across Snowdonia, 75 km through mid-Wales, 45 km through the Mendip Hills and across the Severn River, 95 km across the Kentish AONB, 30 km through Dedham Vale AONB and 55 km of Lincolnshire that is so far untouched. These names may not mean much to people abroad, but they certainly do to the British. The highly popular BBC TV "Countryfile" programme regularly returns to the issue, causing widespread concern.

The Welsh focus has been mainly about the link across mid-Wales. The Welsh have set themselves a target of 2 GW of onshore wind power capacity by 2015, with 874 MW of this coming from mid-Wales. However, in the view of the National Grid, the cheapest way to get this to a primarily English market via Shrewsbury across the border, is 40-50 km of 400 kV overhead line, across an area of considerable beauty, so far free of any power lines at all.

Rather rapidly, Friends of the Earth Cymru (FOE Cymru), backed up by local groups, complained vocally about the idea. They wanted the link put underground, to which the National Grid responded that this

The Queen's consort, the Duke of Edinburgh has made known his opposition to wind farms generally, supported by his son, the Prince of Wales
would increase the price from around £178 million to £562 million. FOE Cymru produced a sophisticated argument. The National Grid plan was to link a nominal 874 MW of wind farms with two gold-plated 1GW circuits, in case one circuit failed. FOE pointed out that as the actually highest output of the wind farms concerned was likely to be no more than a real capacity of 240 MW a year, two 500 MW circuits would be more than adequate and that this could be buried at a much cheaper price - roughly £359 million.

In any case, any loss of transmission would not in practice cost very much. Furthermore the size of the proposed network suggested that a lot more wind farms were planned. Such was the fuss that Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales, has let it be known that he too would prefer the grid to bury the lines. After considerable local consultations with a travelling 'road-show', the National Grid has retired to consider the responses, but the argument is not over yet.

Tricky position

The UK Government is aware of this potential challenge to its strategy and has responded by suggesting new designs for pylons and by weakening the planning laws that govern where they can be placed. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DEEC) teamed up in May 2011 with the Institute of British Architects to offer a £5,000 prize for a new design of pylon. After 250 entries and six on a shortlist, the prize was awarded to a Danish entry by Rasmuss Jessing of Bystrup, which consisted of a T-shaped tower that is 32 metres high and weighs 20 tonnes. In this regard, it is both shorter and lighter than the conventional British design, which reaches 50 metres and weighs 30 tonnes.

Whether the new design will help people love the pylon has yet to be seen. More important perhaps is that the new coalition government in Westminster announced last year that it is drastically “streamlining” the planning procedures for building wind turbines (i.e. making it more difficult for people to object to new projects. Since 1959, route planning has largely been controlled by the ‘Holford Rules’, which include the avoidance of “major areas of the highest amenity value…even if the total mileage is longer.” The government wants to weaken these rules by gutting the planning system instructions (the National Planning Policy Framework or NPPF in which the Holford Rules used to be embedded) from 1,000 to 52 pages. The new rules remove any objection to rural development on the grounds of the “intrinsic value” of the countryside to the fury of CPRE and the National Trust. As a committee of MPs put it, ‘brevity does not achieve clarity’. They pointed out that the new proposals over-ruled local plans and that ‘yes’ was the default position of the new rules. Rejections by local authorities of wind farm proposals have risen from 29% in 2005 to 48% in 2010. Yet it has regularly been made clear by inspectors from The Planning Inspectorate, reporting to the Department of Communities and Local Government, whose function is to interpret and enforce the NPPF, that national carbon targets over-ride all local objections.

Wind energy opposition first started as early as 2004, with the "Highlands before Pylons" (source: Thinkstock)
The Government's plan is clearly to kick-start infrastructure projects like grid renewal with rather less argument than previously. However it is in a tricky position. Since the devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, a great deal of the control over the environment has gone from Westminster. Equally, the lead party in the Westminster UK Government, the Conservatives, have only one MP in Scotland and only seven out of 40 in Wales. For Westminster to demand that the grid takes the cheapest options available without much consultation is asking for trouble.

As HBP made clear in its evidence to the Economics Committee of the House of Lords in June 2008, it is not really obvious who is in charge of the issue, at least in Scotland. The UK Government in Westminster has apparently overall control of the grid and energy policy generally, while the Scottish Government controls planning consent. The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) can reject a grid project, while the National Grid, with Scottish Power and the SSE, have a monopoly on owning the grid and thus to propose what goes where.

Prince of Wales

To add to this confusion, in its 2020 Transmission Report produced in June 2011, National Grid pointed out that: "It will become increasingly necessary to restrict output from wind generation onto the system to ensure sufficient thermal capacity is synchronised." What this means is that if wind farm production exceeds 35% of installed capacity and demand falls below half of peak demand levels in 2020, then the grid will have to ask them to stop producing. In that case, constraint payments are going to be a lot more than the current figure of £10 million a year, since the grid reckons this will happen on 38 days a year, or rather more than the 17 days in 2011 and including much more wind capacity.

As things now stand, according to the appendices of the National Grid's latest Seven Year statement, 88 out of 463, or nearly 20% of expected grid upgrading projects between 2010/11 and 2016/17 are directly concerned with wind farm connections. This, of course, excludes any strengthening of the grid elsewhere that are wind related. In January Ofgem fast-tracked for approval an expenditure of £7.6 billion on the Scottish high-voltage grid by 2021, specifically mentioning the need to increase wind power links. The National Grid is expected to put forward £30 billion-worth of grid strengthening proposals in March.

All this has implications for British politics. Opposition in the heartlands of rural England and Wales is strongest amongst people who traditionally support the Conservative Party. Even the Queen's consort, the Duke of Edinburgh has made known his opposition to wind farms generally, supported by his son, the Prince of Wales. Hence too the letter last week from a third of the Conservative MPs against the wind farm subsidy and the proposed change in planning rules.

And there is another issue just over the horizon. Nuclear power is potentially about to re-enter the picture. Eight new stations of the size of EdF’s Hinckley C, as proposed, but to say the least

If it is agreed that nuclear energy does not produce carbon emissions, then why not adapt the system of incentives that currently operates for wind farms?
controversial, would amount to a total of 26 GW of new capacity coming on after 2020, fully capable of operating at 85% load factors. The Government has already been told that it cannot subsidise its electricity by setting a base price, but if it is agreed that nuclear energy does not produce carbon emissions, then why not adapt the system of incentives that currently operates for wind farms? ROCs have paved the way for subsidising the cost of carbon-free electricity and offshore wind farms get two ROCs per MWh. Why not create an incentive to nuclear investment in the same way? The consumer will be the one to pay. Under current legislation ROCs are not due to be phased out before March 2027.

Indeed, if the worst came to the worst, come 2025, the UK could have a base load of heavily subsidised nuclear, incapable of balancing the load of the too variable subsidised wind capacity, with an expanded unsubsidised gas-fired capacity trying desperately to bridge the hourly gap between them. The grid is going to have to be pretty flexible and that means more pylons.

The government is in a tricky situation. The Cabinet minister responsible for so enthusiastically backing the onshore wind farms, Chris Huhne, has been forced to resign under allegations of perverting the course of justice on a driving offence. Faced by such a powerful opposition from so many MPs at the heart of the government party, his successor is in for a tough time. The National Trust, with four million voting members, has already expressed anger at the destruction of the NPPF. More rural pressure groups are expected to follow.


Loading comments...
related items